Greek mythology, maenads or Bacchantes Ancient Greek: were the female followers of Dionysus/Bacchus and the most significant members of the Thiasus, the god's retinue. Their name literally translates as "raving ones". Maenads were known as Bassarids, Bacchae /ˈbækiː/ or Bacchantes /ˈbækənts, bəˈkænts, -ˈkɑːnts/ in Roman mythology after the penchant of the equivalent Roman god, Bacchus, to wear a bassaris or fox-skin.
Often the maenads were portrayed as inspired by Dionysus into a state of ecstatic frenzy through a combination of dancing and intoxication. During these rites, the maenads would dress in fawn skins and carry a thyrsus, a long stick wrapped in ivy or vine leaves and tipped with a pine cone. They would weave ivy-wreaths around their heads or wear a bull helmet in honor of their god, and often handle or wear snakes.
These women were mythologized as the 'mad women' who were nurses of Dionysus in Nysa. Lycurgus "chased the Nurses of the frenzied Dionysus through the holy hills of Nysa, and the sacred implements dropped to the ground from the hands of one and all, as the murderous Lycurgus struck them down with his ox-goad".They went into the mountains at night and practiced strange rites.
According to Plutarch's Life of Alexander, maenads were called Mimallones and Klodones in Macedon, epithets derived from the feminine art of spinning wool.Nevertheless, these warlike parthenoi ("virgins") from the hills, associated with a Dionysios pseudanor "fake male Dionysus", routed an invading enemy. In southern Greece they were described with Bacchae, Bassarides, Thyiades, Potniades and other epithets.
The term maenad has come to be associated with a wide variety of women, supernatural, mythological, and historical,associated with the god Dionysus and his worship.
The Bacchanalia were Roman festivals of Bacchus, based on various ecstatic elements of the Greek Dionysia. They seem to have been popular, and well-organised, throughout the central and southern Italian peninsula. They were almost certainly associated with Rome's native cult of Liber, and probably arrived in Rome itself around 200 BC but like all mystery religions of the ancient world, very little is known of their rites.
Livy, writing some 200 years after the event, offers a scandalised, extremely colourful account of the Bacchanalia. Modern scholarship takes a skeptical approach to his allegations of frenzied rites, sexually violent initiations of both sexes, all ages and all social classes, and the cult as a murderous instrument of conspiracy against the state. Livy claims that seven thousand cult leaders and followers were arrested, and that most were executed.
Senatorial legislation to reform the Bacchanalia in 186 BC attempted to control their size, organisation, and priesthoods, under threat of the death penalty. This may have been motivated less by the kind of lurid and dramatic rumours that Livy describes than by the senate's determination to assert its civil and religious authority over Rome and her allies, after the prolonged social, political and military crisis of the Second Punic War. The reformed Bacchanalia rites may have been merged with the Liberalia festival. Bacchus, Liber and Dionysus became virtually interchangeable from the late Republican era onward, and their mystery cults persisted well into the Roman Imperial era.
Dancing maenad. Detail from an Ancient Greek Paestum red-figure skyphos, made by Python, ca. 330-320 BC. British Museum, London
In Euripides' play The Bacchae, maenads of Thebes murder King Pentheus after he bans the worship of Dionysus. Dionysus, Pentheus' cousin, himself lures Pentheus to the woods, where the maenads tear him apart. His corpse is mutilated by his own mother, Agave, who tears off his head, believing it to be that of a lion. A group of maenads also kill Orpheus.
In ceramic art, the frolicking of Maenads and Dionysus is often a theme depicted on kraters, used to mix water and wine. These scenes show the maenads in their frenzy running in the forests, often tearing to pieces any animal they happen to come across.
The Bacchanalia were Roman festivals of Bacchus, the Greco-Roman god of wine, freedom, intoxication and ecstasy. They were based on the Greek Dionysia and the Dionysian mysteries, and probably arrived in Rome c. 200 BC via the Greek colonies in southern Italy, and from Etruria, Rome's northern neighbour. Like all mystery cults, the Bacchanalia were held in strict privacy, and initiates were bound to secrecy; what little is known of the cult and its rites derives from Greek and Roman literature, plays, statuary and paintings.